True Story: I’m raising my family in rural Alaska

family rural Alaska


Tell us a bit about yourself! 
Hi! I’m Shelly. I am 30 years old and originally from Washington State. My husband Josh and I have been married for nine years and have three sons. The twins, Logan and Jack, are four and our baby boy, Wyatt, is one. I have a bachelors degree in psychology with a minor in human development and enjoy reading and blogging.
Why did you and your family decide to move to rural Alaska?
When my husband was still in the process of getting his teaching degree, I got baby fever. We had been married five years and I was turning 25. He agreed that we could try, as long as I didn’t mind working for two years while he finished up.
I got pregnant the first month.
With twins.
When the babies were five months old I went back to the elementary school where I worked in a special ed class. It was agonizing. I cried many mornings on my way to work during those two years. When Josh graduated I thought I was finally done, but he couldn’t find work anywhere. He applied for job after job, even secured multiple interviews, but his lack of experience left him unemployed.
So I headed back for a third year as a working mom, and two months later found out I was unexpectedly pregnant. I was devastated. How could I bring another baby into this already desperate situation? We were barely paying our bills as it was.
As fall turned to winter, my outlook was bleak. Josh sat me down and asked how serious I was about being a stay-at-home mom. What he was really asking was how far was I willing to go to realize that dream.
Anywhere, I told him. I will go anywhere.
And I meant it.

Tell us about the process of relocating to Alaska.

After attending a job fair in Seattle, Josh secured a position and we began shipping necessities to Marshall, which is a village in southwest Alaska that has a population of 350 people, and is nestled along the Yukon River. There are no roads in or out of Marshall, so everything that comes into the village does so by airplane. We spent over $5,000 shipping our entire household via the United States Post Office.
Do you find the culture in Alaska to be noticeably different from Washington? If so, how is it different?
The culture in Marshall stems from its native Alaskan population, who are Yupik. People here survive on subsistence living; picking berries, hunting moose, and fishing for Salmon in the river. There are also Eskimo dances and potlucks in the village, which bring everyone together. The people here travel by four wheeler or snow machine, and everyone is big into basketball.Obviously, hunting is big here, and Josh had never hunted. This year he shot his first moose, an 800-pound bull, and butchered it himself. It was an amazing amount of work and every time I cook with that meat I am reminded of where we are living.

What are the biggest challenges of living in the bush?
There is snow on the ground from September through May, and in winter temperatures can reach sixty below. For three months of the year, we have only four hours of daylight. Marshall is a small town with just three churches, a gas station and a small co-op. Groceries can be hard to come by, with fresh fruit or dairy being nearly impossible to secure.
I am like everyone else out there. I miss Target. I miss Barnes and Noble. I miss going to jewelry parties and baby showers.
In addition to adjusting to the drastic weather and my non-existent social life, I have been challenged in the kitchen. Back home, I never cooked. Now I bake bread for my family, make tortillas and cook nearly every meal from scratch.

The biggest rewards?

We have found that the slower pace out here is really conducive to raising a family. We like that we are free to make our own choices without outside influence, and have found our marriage to be stronger as a result.
Josh is overjoyed to be providing for our family while doing what he loves, and is anxious to take advantage of being up here and start work on his masters degree in the fall.
The biggest reward for me personally is that I am home with our boys every day.
What do your friends and family think of your decision?
It was very difficult for some of our family and friends to accept that we were leaving. It felt personal to them. But for me, once I reached that point, it became our only option.
Do you think you’ll stay in Alaska long term?
Yes. We plan to be in Alaska long term. That said, we tend to take the whole adventure one school year at a time. With three growing boys, our family needs could change at any time, and we will always take that into account when making plans for the future.
What advice/resources would you share with people who are interested in moving to Alaska?
My advice would be to find someone who already lives in your village or town, if you can, and pump them for information. I also recommend you do your shopping at Walmart because they will ship it to your village for a small fee in their Bush Department. Free shipping is important when you live so far away from civilization and you can get it with Amazon Prime and also with a Target Red Card.
My biggest advice is to go for it! I went for it, and it is the best decision I have ever made.
I will close with my new favorite quote:“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” -Mary Oliver

Thanks so much for sharing, Shelly!  Do any of you guys live in rural Alaska?  Any tips to share?

P.S. True Story: I worked on Alaskan fishing boats (starting at age 9) + True Story: My husband and I sailed from LA to New Zealand while I was pregnant. 

33 Comments

Amber-Rose Thomas

This is so lovely. I don't think I would ever want to live and raise a family in somewhere like Alaska, but then I really really can't stand the cold.

I love that this makes me think I probably could do it I ended up making the decision to live there. After all, you can't live a wild and precious life with a fear of anything below 4c.

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Shelly Cunningham

If it weren't for my (crazy strong) desire to be home with my boys, I don't think I could have hacked it out here, either. They make every sacrifice worth it. And their enthusiasm for the snow helps me to not mind the cold so much!

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Jenn

I lived in Alaska as well! In Fairbanks, nothing rural. However, I was always envious of rural living. If it were just my son and I, I may or may not have moved back to AK. Since I have my life partner, we plan to move to WA which would be such a perfect place for me. So happy to read about your story. The slow pace environment is so true. Reminding me about Alaska makes me kind of feel like I'm hearing about a little piece of home 🙂

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christy

Hello, Me and My husband with are 3 kids, one being special needs were thinking about moving to Wasilla in a few months, any input would be helpful…

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Bartley Williams

Christy- I am very close to picking up and moving away to Barrow, AK. I am a 13+ year teacher and will be alone. Are there any people (teacher, etc) you know in the Barrow community who can give me an idea of living conditions in the northernmost civilized town in the world. Thank you. bwilliams1879@gmail.com

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Bob Epstein

Hi Shelly, great Q&A! I was wondering: I am working on assignment for a national magazine. Story is about someone, a family, couple who moved to Alaska and made a life there! Would need to telephone interview you and hopefully your husband too! Would need at least 15-hi res images of representative things you do there. The family group picture too. If interested (there is no charge, it’s an editorial piece that will be read by at least 280-thousand and you’d get a copy of the magazine New Pioneer Magazine, see latest issue, you’ll see my articles and bio

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Shelly Cunningham

It's breathtaking here for sure. The best comparison I can make is that it's like going to the beach– you suddenly feel small in the big scheme of things.

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Anonymous

What an interesting adventure their family has taken! Just an FYI, there are many teaching jobs available in WA now (I know they were hard to come by during the recession), especially for those with a special ed endorsement. I just completed my degree and just about all of my cohort members have found jobs already. If your husband has access to the internet, he could get his master's degree in teaching online very affordably via the state's governor's university: http://washington.wgu.edu/education/washington_masters_teaching_degree
Also, since working in the home with your children is a priority, I would suggest moving to Eastern WA as an affordable option, as well, in case you all choose to move back to the state at some point. My friend was just recruited to a position in the tri-cities. Anyway, just sharing ideas. Good luck in AK:)

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Shelly Cunningham

My husband was originally born in Eastern Washington! So funny that you'd recommend a move there. 🙂 We are thinking we'll stay in Alaska so he can retire here. The retirement is great and you only have to work 20 years. But who knows what the future holds– we're taking it a year at a time right now.

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Kaisa

Not long ago I met somebody from Alaska. I think he had also lived in some tiny village. And he had seen polar bears as a kid. :O I guess for me it would be impossible to live somewhere so dark and snowy. Well, back home in Estonia we might get snow for like half a year when it's a cold winter and it's really dark. I don't mind the cold, but I must say the amount of light and sunshine in Spain is a real treat for me. xx

http://reindeertrails.blogspot.com.es

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Shelly Cunningham

We have no polar bears this far south, but we have seen red fox as well as moose from our front porch. Brown bears are often spotted in town, but I personally haven't seen them. (Thank goodness!) The first two years, the dark did not bother me, but this past fall & winter were very hard on me emotionally. Next year I'll be using a light box and taking vitamin D to keep myself a little more cheery!

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EJ

This reminds me of the book "Julie of the Wolves" I don't fully remember the book so it may or may not actually relate but regardless I felt the need to share. I love these "True Stories" and this one is especially lovely. Blessings to you and your family! Good luck with the winter! 🙂

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Darlin' T

So interesting! I hopped over to your blog, Shelly, and have been reading some of your archives. What an adventure for you and your family. Thanks for sharing.

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rikki

I live in Alaska, too! But nowhere near as far out hahaha I'm back & forth between A-town & just outside of Wasilly. I've tried living on the Outside, but there really is no place like home and home for me will forever be AK. This place surely does change you & becomes a part of your soul.

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Shelly Cunningham

We would eventually like to settle down in Wasilla, or somewhere on the road system. For the two of us, living out here is a challenge, but doable. But with three growing boys to think of, it'd be nice to raise them somewhere with a little more opportunities available.

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Cory Wright

I have been thinking about moving to Alaska for awhile now. I really can not find a job, or a descent place to live. I would really like to find a rule place to live off the land. Any advice?

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Shelly Cunningham

Cory- I realize my response is delayed (sorry for that!) but it really depends on what line of work you could qualify for. Teaching is ideal because housing is often provided. Construction is another way to live in a rural village and be employed. Church workers & medical professionals are other groups of people that can make livings out here.

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nicole

Hi my name is Nicole my husband wants to move to Alaska but I’m scared.and he wants to live in a rural area do u have any advice on how to get the move on the road or in a village.thanks

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Shelly Cunningham

Nicole, I’m sorry I am just now seeing this, nearly three months later, but I want to help out! Rural Alaska certainly isn’t for everyone, but it might be fun to try it for a year or two. We shipped our belongings to the village via the post office, but if he finds a job on the road system, you can use a moving van just like anywhere else. I would love to answer any more specific questions you have– please feel free to email me: rcunningham18@hotmail.com

If he is really interested in teaching in Alaska, he should apply on Alaska Teacher Placement (www.alaskateacher.org) and go from there!

Good luck!

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Bruce Hankins

My Friend, Tim Sisk, is heading there next week to teach. Are you still there? He is going to need a lot of hand holding. Another friend, Mary Cook, lives in Scammon Bay. She is teaching science there. This is her second year.

Bruce Hankins

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Shelly Cunningham

Hi Bruce, I’m not there currently. I have been in Washington this school year to be pregnant and give birth to our baby girl near medical care & family. But my husband Josh is still teaching there in the Marshall. He just hooked up Tim’s TV Dish for him!

Shelly Cunningham

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Dana Woodward

I read your article and it was a very good read. My wife and I are both in Washington however since our younger years we have always wanted to move to Alaska. I’m in the Navy and once I retire we are looking at moving up there. I’m trying to find out information on the best way to look for jobs as being from the lower 48. We want to live somewhat remotely. I still want running water and toilet in the house. I have done the outside thing while with Marines not interested anymore. I have thought about being a teacher. My background is in healthcare.

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Nichole

God bless you and your family, Shelly! You and your husband are amazing and your boys will undoubtedly be amazing too!!!

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adam

Hello,

This was a good read, im getting ready to move to Rural Alaska myself with my wife but we are moving to a place with only 70 people after living in a city of 8 million. Were looking forward to the adventure.

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